A Christian's Response to Death and Dying
In 1969 Elizabeth Kubler Ross wrote a groundbreaking book on the subject of death and dying. She noted a pattern of behaviour that dying patients exhibited as they themselves approached death from terminal illness, or suffered the death of a loved one. Her 5 "stages" have become famous and often repeated in teaching people on how to cope with serious illness and death. In case you've forgotten her 5 stages were:
- Shock / denial
She taught that people didn't necessary go from one stage directly to the other, but rather went from one another in a cyclical fashion. For example, shock would be followed by anger and then depression and then a measure of acceptance after which one might revert back to bargaining with God for more time (in case of terminal illness). People tend to zigzag from one emotion to another for various amounts of time until, hopefully, they would remain in the acceptance mode for longer and longer periods of time. This is the primary model upon which much of the study of people's reactions to death and dying are based.
Kubler Ross was not a Christian and in later years saw herself as a sort of "medium" able to contact the spirit world. Much of her later writings were not taken very seriously for this reason.
I mention this about her because it confirms in my mind the fact that she did not use the Bible as a model for her death and dying theories. If she would have done so she would have discovered a similar model to the one she observed in people, however she would have discovered a much more complete and satisfying response to death and dying, and that is the response of a believer to death and dying is different than what she wrote.
As a human being, a believer's response to his/her own terminal illness or the death of a loved one is the same as any other person's response. However, because of faith in God, trust in Christ, that response goes beyond the mere 5 steps that Ross described.
I. Job's Response To Death and Dying.
If we had to examine one person in the Bible who experienced both the threat of terminal illness and the death of loved ones simultaneously -- it would be Job. We are familiar with Job's story.
- He was wealthy and well respected in his community for his goodness, wisdom and piety.
- He had a large family of sons and daughters.
- God permitted Satan to test him in order to see if he would be faithful in trial as he had been in abundance.
- Satan caused Job to lose
- His wealth
- His children (all were killed at once)
- His reputation
- His health
- The love and support of his wife and his family.
Now after all these things had happened to Job we read that he did not respond like ordinary people do. He did not act like the people Kubler described in her book. He responded differently than most folks would in a similar situation. Most people after experiencing what Job experienced would go into denial and shock not wanting to accept the reality of the terrible things that have just taken place or would try to put the events out of their minds as soon as the funeral is over - "Life goes on" type thing.
I'm always amazed how quickly people begin to talk sports or light up a cigarette or gossip after a funeral service. No more than a minute passes after the final prayer at a graveside service and people are in a hurry to get back to "normal". It seems that people want to get the grieving over with as soon as possible. They want to blame God or question God concerning their tragedy. Why now, why this, why me, why them?
Believers, however, are not most people. Their way of dealing with death and dying is different because of the cross that is behind them, the Spirit that is within them, and the future that is before them. An example of this Job's response to the loss his wealth, children and position all in the same day. In the book of Job, chapter 1, we see the 5 steps that this believer went through in his experience of death and dying.
Step 1 - Mourning
Then Job arose and tore his robe and shaved his head. Job 1: 20a
Job immediately begins to lament the loss of his children as well as the other good things he has enjoyed for so long. Note that he accepts as true the events that have befallen him. Tears his robe, shaves head, falls to the ground - natural human, cultural response. This is the natural, healthy way to deal with tragedy - lamenting, mourning.
Some cultures wear black for a year actually it's a good way to separate oneself for a time of re-construction emotionally, socially and spiritually. Don't mind me, I'm in morning.
The worse detriment to recovery from a tragedy is to force a time limit for ourselves to "get over" our loss. If you don't weep and mourn when it happens, you'll weep and mourn later.
Many depressions and anxieties are the result of improper time and effort given over to mourning the loss of a loved one, marriage, good health or family situation. Mourning was all Job could do at this point and he did it as a way of saving his sanity.
Step 2 - Worship
“I came naked from my mother’s womb,
and I will be naked when I leave.
The Lord gave me what I had,
and the Lord has taken it away.
Praise the name of the Lord!”
Job 1:20b - 21
As a believer, once Job could struggle to right himself from the shock, his first thought is to go to God in worship and prayer. It is unfortunate that so many see prayer as last hope, a grasping at straws when things go bad. Instead of worship, tragedy leads may to:
- Drink and Drugs
- Excessive eating or abuse of themselves in various ways.
- All kinds of escapist methods to deal with the great pain associated with death and dying.
Of course the verse here in Job does not contain all that he said, doesn't repeat for us every prayer uttered -- rather we are given the conclusion of his worship and talking to God. We read about the insight that he first gains as a result of that prayer.
Initial prayer and worship does not always produce such deep insights into the nature of our situation, such clarity about its meaning. However, when the thought of existing one more minute on this earth is too painful to bear - the only place we can and should go is to God in humble worship and prayer. If trouble, pain and death don't drive us to our knees - what will?
It's like being strapped into a roller coaster where we feel powerless to affect anything happening to us and our feelings. For this reason we need to come closer to the one who does have the power to control all things - including death. This may not change the circumstances but it does bring us peace and at times a certain understanding.
Job did this and although his situation did not change, through his tears he was rewarded with a crystal clear understanding of the true nature of his life and its ultimate meaning and substance.
Step #3 - Silence
In all of this, Job did not sin by blaming God. Job 1:22
Although later on Job did break his silence, his first and correct impulse was to hold his peace and contemplate his situation and wait upon the Lord. The Bible explains this by saying that Job didn't complain to or blame God. He didn't charge God foolishly. He didn't question God as to the timing, the fairness or the degree of suffering.
He didn't dwell on the "why" of it all with the suggestion that there may have been a better way, an easier way. He did not substitute a plan of his own for what had happened that might have lessened the blow. He said nothing concerning the events and how they took place. The Bible says that in doing this, he sinned not.
Kubler Ross described the stages of grieving as denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. We've come to see these as normal human progressions and response to death and dying. We should also note that for a weak and sinful person these may be normal responses, however,
- To lash out at God in anger.
- To question His actions.
- To try and change His decision or feel sorry for ourselves.
All of these are fleshly, worldly responses born out of our sinful and weak natures. The only spiritual reaction is the final stage, the one of acceptance.
Compare these however, with Job's initial response to death and dying:
He mourned and lamented his loss.
- We see that within his very first reaction, is included most of Kubler Ross's normal human response of denial, anger and depression.
He drew near to God in prayer and worship.
- He didn't bargain with God, he bowed down before God in humility and trust.
He remained silent.
- During this time he contemplated his situation and searched for meaning.
Eventually he developed a life threatening illness, lost the support of his wife and was condemned by his friends as a sinner who had brought all this misery upon himself. These additional burdens led Job to the last two steps in the believer's journey through the experience of grief and dying.
Step # 4 - Enlightenment.
For nearly 40 chapters in an on going dialogue with his friends we watch Job as he comes to grips with not simply the reality and meaning of his suffering but the truth that stands behind not only his suffering but the suffering of all men. Job learns that his experience is worth it if it reveals more perfectly the God he believes in. In other words, if your suffering serves to give you a glimpse of God almighty, then it is a small matter and any complaining was foolish and sinful in comparison to what has been discovered, what has been given to you.
Enlightenment, especially that enlightenment that enables us to see God more clearly is of more value than what we have lost - whatever that is, however we suffer.
Job learned that life as well as death is in God's hands and the painful experience of it is justified if it leads us face to face with God - even if it's for a moment. - That one moment is worth all the suffering. The non-believers' best hope is to arrive at that point where they accept reality and learn to cope with it. That reality being that people suffer and die and there is nothing they can do about it except carry on as best they can - this is as good as it gets!
Suffering and death for believers however, brings them face to face with the ultimate reality, and that is that there is a living God who gives life and controls death by His power. The ultimate end therefore is that death and dying strengthens faith and hope and loses its grip of fear and sorrow on our hearts. Only an enlightened person like Paul the Apostle could write these words when facing death, "For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain" Phil.1: 21. He had seen beyond suffering and death and had a glimpse of God's reality, and it's was worth all the suffering
Step # 5 - Restoration
In the last chapter we learn that God heals Job and restores his family, wealth and position. This didn't change the fact that Job had suffered and lost children and prestige - his suffering was real. You see God doesn't give us our old life back; He gives us a new life. Here on earth it's a life we can live and live with. Sometimes it's very different. Sometimes it's harder. But for believers it's always a life where God is more prominent than before -- He is the reward for persevering.
You may not have a parent or child or spouse or loved one or health any more, but you now have more of Him to make up for it. And in the next world, the great promise for those who have experienced the enlightenment of suffering, is that you will have all of Him all the time because after your death you will leave behind everything that comes between you and Him now.